Muslim women in the media: Silenced or Sexualized

For many years, particularly the period following 9/11, there has been an overabundance of misconceptions and misrepresentations of Muslim women in American television and film, which has had an enormous impact on the public mind. The negative stereotyping and homogenous outlook has led to a large cultural misunderstanding of Arabic and particularly Muslim women as many Westerners see such women as inferior to the Western defined norm by virtue of their “incomprehensible” difference. These false and exaggerated representations in the media have ultimately led to the oppression of this minority group. As stated in the 2006 documentary “Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People”, “Washington and Hollywood spring from the same DNA”. It is no wonder that individuals in Western society hold the same misguided views on Muslim people that are so often portrayed in the media. It is with this post that I will highlight several examples of the stereotyping of Muslim people that is exhibited through television and film. For example in the television show “The Bachelor” and the film “Zero Dark Thirty”.

In Hollywood film and television today, Muslim women are often characterized in two extreme but very different manners. Muslim women are either portrayed as silenced victims or as sexually available and exotic beings. In both these extremes, victimhood and sexualization, the oppression is always at the hands of a man. The abundance of media images of Muslim women pleasing men, through submissiveness or through sexuality, is a constant reminder of the heteronormative society we live in. These forms of pleasure are never directed towards another woman nor are they self-satisfying, but these images always convey men in a powerful position receiving pleasure from the oppression of women, which ultimately represents a male privileged society.

With respect to Muslim women who are depicted as passive victims of masculine dominance, this victimization is often demonstrated in the media through images of cloaked women submissively following a dominant male figure, often for example, images of women shuffling in the background are seen. Moreover, in many movies it is not uncommon to see women covered in black from head to toe, appearing as unattractive and enslaved beings to men. They shuffle behind abusive and dominant “terrorist” men following their every command while not muttering a word. This for example is prevalent in the movie “Zero Dark Thirty”. While I searched the Internet to find a clip or an image to demonstrate the portrayal of Muslim women in this movie, I came up empty handed. After further research, here is why: The movie, lasting over two hours, takes place in many different Middle Eastern cities in the Islamic republic, yet Muslim women are only shown in 13 scenes, most of such scenes taking place at Osama Bin Laden’s compound during the American attack. Not one of the Muslim women shown in this movie had single scripted line (the only noises that the women made were screams or crying), thus emphasizing the stereotypical silenced submissive figure. Furthermore, these women are depicted as the “belongings” of terrorist men in the movie. The only discussion of Muslim women is when a CIA officer notes that Muslim women must live with their husbands and are never found independently living in a home (which can explain why most of the women were seen in Bin Laden’s compound). This comment reiterates the Westernized view that Muslim women are the possession of men, and are oppressed by Islam. In other scenes of the busy downtown streets, occasionally several women in burqas can be spotted in the background, but even this is seldom (I think it is important to note that in present day Pakistan, where several of the scenes took place, many women in fact do not wear any head coverings). Moreover, not only are the Muslim women in this film displayed as the victims of Muslim men, but also are vilified and made inferior in comparison to the “heroic” upper-class white American men. To conclude, non-Muslim people frequently mention veils as evidence of the oppression of Muslim women, and when media outlets such as the film “Zero Dark Thirty” only portray these oppressed images, it is no wonder that non-Muslim people develop such false notions. Not only do these images narrow the Western understanding of Muslim women, but they also create cultural barriers for Muslim women in reality, as they are unfairly judge based on these false representations.

On the contrary a very different representation of Muslim women is also demonstrated in popular media today. The second common representation is of Muslim women being exotic and darkly-tempting sex-symbols. Particularly more recently, exoticized, and hypersexualized images of Muslim women are becoming increasingly popular. Many movies and TV shows highlight objectifying Muslim women as sex symbols, for example in the heteronormative and highly criticized, but ever so popular show, “The Bachelor”. This season, America was introduced to the first-ever Muslim woman on the Bachelor, Selma.


Selma (The Bachelor, Season 17 Contestant)

It was not until Selma mentioned her families faith, however, that the viewers realized that she was Muslim as she has had numerous cosmetic surgeries to make her face appear less “Middle Eastern”, as well as admitted to undergoing skin-lightening treatment. Moreover, America assumed that she was not of the Islamic religion by virtue of the fact she did not wear a veil. The Bachelor himself was shocked when she confided in him of her religious views, as was the rest of America.  Following the addition of Selma to the cast, “The Bachelor” was praised for “racially diversifying their cast”. I disagree with this statement, as the producers would never include a woman of Islamic decent if she was not a glamorized exotic woman, falling into the category of a conventionally beautiful feminine woman. Adding a Muslim woman who wears a veil to the cast would be unheard of in this television series, as a woman who wears a veil, most definitely does not fall into the Western idea of a conventionally beautiful woman. One also has to note that Selma comes from a highly privileged background, which I believe also played a major role in her casting on the show, as “The Bachelor” always casts professional and successful women of high socioeconomic status in order to glamorize the show, ultimately to achieve a high profit. Finally, I find it hard to agree that “The Bachelor” could ever diversify their cast by virtue that the show exhibits a dominant heteronormative culture, excluding any individual who identifies themself as queer. It would be unheard of if the nature of the show changed to having homosexual couples finding love and happiness. I find it quite ironic that women who identify themselves as lesbians would never be cast on this show, however, the show is constantly promoting girl-on-girl verbal and physical violence in order to win over the “heart” of a man, ultimately promoting female competition and enlightened sexism.

Finally, I personally have felt to a small degree the oppression that Muslim and more broadly, women of Arabic decent face. Based on my physical appearance, no one has ever guessed that I come from a Middle Eastern decent, as I do not fit the stereotypical “Arab” appearance. My family on my maternal side, however, is from the Middle East. After I share this part of my heritage with friends and peers they immediately assume I am Muslim and do not initially believe that I have family from the Middle East, as I do not fit the veiled and victimized Arabic stereotype so often portrayed in the media. Then after telling people of my family background come the endless and repetitive Middle Eastern “jokes” and “remarks” that never seem to end.

It is because of the popular distorted and inaccurate images of Muslim women exhibited in Western culture, that many people have the view that the Islam community equates with the oppression of women and that such women yearn to live in a “liberating” country like the United States. As stated in the 2006 documentary, “Reel Bad Arabs”, the more Arab women advance, the more Hollywood keeps them locked in the past. I am curious about other positions and views on Muslim women in the media. Do you think that American film has become more oppressive towards Muslim women since the tragedies of 9/11, or do you believe that our society is evolving and becoming more inclusive and less narrow-minded on the Islamic faith?


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